This past Monday, I stayed after school for a meeting of the creative writing club I sponsor, except that apparently there was no meeting. One girl showed up. I told her to have a seat and we’d wait, but if no one else showed up in the next half hour, I’d have to take her to the “safe room” until her parents picked her up. So I started doing some work on the computer.
She must have interpreted the intent look on my face as I tried to focus on recording grades in my gradebook and on the computer as a signal to begin telling me about her stories. As God is my witness, I can’t remember what any of her stories were about. The little bit that I picked up, it sounded like they belonged to the fantasy genre, maybe sci-fi. She had already planned out a four-novel epic, but was conflicted about the motivation for killing off a main character at the end of the first book.
She said that she had picked out the titles of her books, but couldn’t figure out how her story would fit the title of the fourth and final book, so she was thinking about changing the name. I told her that the title should be the last thing she came up with–after all, publishers and editors will often change the names of books for marketing reasons. Besides, I was going to say, it’d be easier to write a title that matches your book than write a book to match a title. I say “going to” because I decided to dress up the lesson a little bit.
ME [in the “Ah, the young are adorable when they’re foolish, but I’m here to help them” voice]: How long is the average book title?
HER: I don’t know.
HER: Three words.
ME: Okay, three words. And how long is the average book?
HER: I don’t know.
ME: You said you’ve written one already, how long is it?
HER: I’ve written three.
ME: Um… okay, how long are they, would you say?
HER: Seven hundred pages.
ME: Okay, well is it easier to–did you say seven hundred pages?
HER: Yes sir.
ME [paying real attention now]: Um. Okay. Well, is it easier to come up with 700 pages that fit a three word title, or easier to come up with a three word title that fits 700 pages?
HER: Come up with a three word title to fit 700 pages.
ME: Probably. Use a working title, but–did you say you wrote three books?
HER: Yes sir. But I threw them out.
HER: They weren’t good.
ME [serious voice now]: Listen: Never throw anything you write out. Never. It’s yours. Don’t trash it just because others don’t like it, or you think they won’t like it. It’s yours. It isn’t theirs. Right?
ME: You can’t throw that stuff out. Maybe later on you can come back to it and tweak it, find what you liked and keep it…
HER: Well, I deleted them from the computer, but they’re in the computer recycle bin.
ME: That’s good, that means you can recover them.
HER: I guess so.
ME: Get them out of the recycle bin, save several copies of them, print out copies of them. Make sure you never lose them.
Hopefully she listened. It may turn out that every word she wrote is crap, but it’s still hers, and it’s still her.
The very next day, I had to attend another day of the “N.A.T. Seminar.” It was generally unproductive, but there were a few interesting moments. The presenter identified four types of assessment: short answer (multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, etc.), extended response (fancy term for “essay”), skill/performance, and project/product. She then asked us to recall positive and negative experiences that we had had with those types of assessment. The catch was that she meant experiences from when we were students.
One of my coworkers shared a story about a writing course she took in college. She signed up for this course because the professor was a Nobel Laureate. One of the assignments in this course was to keep a daily journal, which my coworker loved. She’d pour her heart, mind and soul into lavish entries that were longer than anything her classmates were writing, even though it was for practice and would only receive a completion grade. I think she said that by the end of the semester, she had used up multiple composition books while none of her classmates had used up even one.
So at the end of the semester, Mr. Nobel Laureate, who had been reading these journals as they progressed, wrote down some commentary and distributed it to the students. His comment to my coworker was, in essence, “I can tell that you love to write. It’s good that you’re a science major and I wish you lots of luck in that because you can’t write.”
She finished her story with a wistful smile on her face. I don’t know exactly how long ago this happened–she has a daughter older than me, so work from there–but it was plain that that “you can’t write” still stung. She then kicked herself around some more for not pursuing it further and mentioned that she had two unfinished novels stashed away at home.
I asked if she still had them. She did. I asked if she’d ever thought about digging them out and finishing them? She said that from time to time she did. I told her that she should finish them. So what if they never got published? People complete and keep their own paintings, sculptures, and crafts even if no one else wants to buy them–why not their own writings?
That was the end of the discussion because we had to move on. I should introduce this coworker to the little girl in my club.
The most fun I ever had writing something was back in ’97, ’98. It was a complete but unpolished story about growing up, about lamenting the one who got away, about endangering a lot of important friendships and ruining lives along the way. After those talks this week, it’s time to finish that story. It may not end up on a bestseller list, or a freshman literature syllabus, but I’ll be perfectly happy if Captain Tnecniv Olleiracsiv Versus the Space Ninjas inspires even one aspiring writer to put pen to paper.